Pa Ranjith’s new film, Natchathiram Nagargiradhu, often indulges in fades to black. This is in addition to a certain feral wordiness accompanying cats’ meows depending on who’s talking. It’s used to alter the temporal flow of the film that talks about love in all its countless denominations. It is also in keeping with the film’s set up—a theatre troupe and what conflicts they encounter within themselves when they try to improvise a play on love. It recalls the experience of watching a play, the curtain stays up, the stage goes dark for what are seconds but feels like minutes, and the space and locations are different when the lights come back on. Maybe it’s a different time too. Either we’ve travelled back in time or into the future.
The anchor of this film is Rene (Dushara Vijayan in absolute ease in every scene) and Iniyan’s (Kalidas Jayaram) magnetic relationship. They either attract or repel each other. Around them is the theatre group—Subeer (Regin Rose) who has under him a potpourri of characters and love stories encompassing ideology, gender and sexuality. There is a reason we get only first names in a Ranjith film.
The first half of the film (also written by Ranjith) reminded me of an unlikely companion film—Gaspar Noé’s Climax. Climax is about a dance troupe, a chamber drama like the theatre here and the first thirty minutes is an array of small exchanges between various members of all ilk and character. Noé’s film begins with a video tape of each character revealing what dance means to them. Ranjith does something similar. We are privy to a series of conversations about love, the conversation within the group and between a pair of individuals. Climax too uses a quicker fade to black between these scenes. In Ranjith’s film we see this editing technique (RK Selva is the editor) married with some split screen and a dash of colours—blue and red (the first meeting between Iniyan and Rene in a party of red is not meet cute, it is meet electric)—that make up for a joyful atmosphere compared to anything Noé can conjure up. The treatment is casual even when it gets slightly charged. It resembles real world debates and not social media debates.
Arjun (Kalaiyarasan) bulky in build and small in mind is the newest member of the troupe who neither shares the camaraderie nor the politics with the rest of the troupe. He comes from a dominant land-owning caste and he’s sexist, homophobic and transphobic. He is terrible to Sylvia (Sherin Celin Mathew), a transwoman. When he’s drunk, he hails abuses at Dayana (Sumeeth Borana), a queer person, and their partner. But the ideologies within the rest of the group is only seemingly in union. They can be blind to their prejudices too. Sekar (Charles Vinoth) and Ayyadurai (Gnanaprasad) have their heteronormative alignment in order, they have a tolerance for Arjun’s nonsense that others don’t. But there’s also Iniyan who we see in the film’s opening lying on bed with Rene and listening to Nina Simone. Their romantic bickering segues to an interlude of Ilaiyaraaja debate as Rene sings En Vaanile (Raaja is a constant throughout the film).
Ranjith juxtaposes Iniyan’s attitude towards a Black activist-singer against a homegrown musician like Ilaiyaraaja who is also a symbol of success against all forms of oppression. His casteist remark towards Rene—a Dalit woman—stems from this blindness. It’s also what makes Rene unforgiving towards him while giving Arjun a second chance to learn and change himself. This irks Iniyan because of his own political praxis—it’s mostly performative. The answer to who is irredeemable isn’t as obvious as one might think—Arjun or Iniyan? It’s also telling of what it really means to love when Rene falls for Iniyan or Arjun falls for Rene. That’s why scenes of similar nature exist between them, Rene leading Iniyan up the stairs towards light and Rene asking Arjun to join her after literally opening a door and bringing light into his life.
But this is a Ranjith film that is in argument with itself. Or Ranjith swapping chairs and debating with himself. Natchathiram Nagargiradhu is a talky film. It’s why Rene when she is forced to tell her own story is made to stand in a witness stand prop on the rehearsal stage. People say a lot of things, drop opinions and even references and usually it is an enjoyable genre, just people talking in a room with no plot. But after a point the film devolves to a lengthy projection of the person in the frame. It’s fine to establish character but not for a whole film’s length.
It’s also an experiment in multiple genres. It’s an ensemble drama that becomes romantic and then a farce. It even becomes a parody when we move to Arjun’s home. They don’t all always work and after a point there is a preachiness in design. The queer characters are relegated and except for the triangle no single character gets a steady ground. It’s true of the rushed, symbolic antagonist too—masked and therefore faceless. It is Ranjith’s gentle nudge that no matter who we are and where we come from, only united can we defeat the politics of hate. And all you need is love.